Portland Fall Arts Guide 2013: 24-Hour Arty People



Art is work. We celebrate the geniuses with virtuoso brilliance and seemingly effortless creativity, but that’s not the way it is for most professionals. Sure, Portland has plenty of dilettantes whoins want to sleep until noon, hot-glue neon pipe cleaners to a salvaged brick and talk about their “process.” But for the  majority of local artists—those who rise before sunrise to spin Alpine folk music, who spend months carving impossibly intricate wooden marionettes, who stay up until 2 am to find the perfect twist of phrase—the act of creation is labor. It’s punctuated by flashes of inspiration and moments of wonder, but it’s work nevertheless.

We wanted to watch. So, on a Thursday in August, Willamette Week writers spent 24 continuous hours immersed in the arts of varied disciplines, all across this city. You might not consider it art to fold tinfoil into a dragonfly, or to sculpt an elaborate cake, but for this day, we cast a wide and generous net. What we found was startling focus, surprising artistic vision and unnerving tolerance for repetition.

Sometimes, these artists’ work produces a bird sculpture made of driftwood or a spray-painted billboard. Other times, it’s an Emmy-winning TV show or a dress to wear to the Emmy ceremony. Here’s what happened on that humid August day. 



5 AM

Radio has no rules before 6 am.  Federal Communications Commission policies on indecent and profane broadcasting don’t apply—the DJ whirling around the tatty booth at KBOO could pump the airwaves full of “fucks,” “shits” and “cocksuckers.”

Paul Roland’s path is different, but also controversial. In his weekly shift at the community radio station, Roland, a spry, soft-spoken and gray-flecked 55-year-old, broadly interprets “folk and traditional music” on KBOO’s Rise  When the Rooster Crows to include European mountain songs.

At 5:37 am, he plays Husmusig Jeremias vo Barn’s “Eviva i soci” from a collection of Alpine folk music. Reviews ring in from folks who tuned in expecting to hear the Carter Family and John Prine. Roland, who has barely spoken as he furiously shuffles between notes scrawled in blue ink and a stack of scuffed jewel cases, picks up the phone.

“It’s, uh, mountain music from Europe. Are you enjoying it?” he asks. “No, huh,  well, I’ll be playing some American mountain music a little later.”

Before the next song, Roland finally uses his microphone. He’s shy—here to spin records, not to hear himself talk. “I’ve had some mixed reviews, I’ve gotta say,” he tells the dark and groggy city. “A lot of you are used to traditional American music.”

He puts on an upbeat fiddle tune, Sonerien Du’s “An Dro,” and braces himself for the next call. It’s a good one.

“Thank you! I’m glad to hear that,” he tells the caller. “Right on!” MARTIN CIZMAR.

6 AM

“I like to get up and work at this hour and not have to talk, says Sharita Towne, a 28-year-old Master of Fine Arts student at Portland State University.

Instead, Towne sits in her Northeast Portland bedroom, scanning photographs of her roommate as a young teen for one of her disparate projects—printmaking,  stereo photography, videography. For one project, Towne traveled to camps for  West Saharan refugees in Algeria, pairing stereoscopic images—which she turned into animated GIFs—with sounds captured by a greeting-card recording  device. The resulting video is determinedly low-tech, the images arresting: tanks, arid landscapes, family portraits.

In another 45-second video clip, Towne projects onto her bare torso and breasts an old black-and-white educational film about slavery. “I work a lot around where I physically carry my particular historical burden, which is being black in this country, having native blood in this country,” Towne says. She taps my  shoulder and gives a jokey look. “Hey, where do you carry your historical burden?” REBECCA JACOBSON.


7 AM

The just-risen sun shines through the skylights of a Southeast Portland studio. Eight people sit cross-legged on the floor, meditating and preparing for this  ecstatic dance class.

“Use your imagination,” a voice instructs. One woman, her gray hair tied into a bun, rolls on her back. A man closes his eyes and bobs up and down, one arm twitching not quite in sync with the music. There’s no other instruction and no talking from the participants, who groove haphazardly as the music transitions from slow Indian ragas to fast-paced bongo beats.

“I’m creating a place for people to come and explore their own creativity,” says Winky Wheeler, who leads the early morning class. A sign by the door reads: “You will need: Curiosity, kindness, stamina, and a willingness to look stupid.” HALEY MARTIN.


8 AM

Before Jutta Bach was a professional cake designer, she was an architect. “It would just drive me crazy if this cake weren’t centered on this plate,” says the German-born Bach, stepping away from the gleaming metal countertop in her small Pearl District kitchen. She presses the back of a spoon against a frosting-covered tier and quickly draws it away, leaving a textured edge that resembles crumpled paper. “I think like an architect, still,” Bach says. “I do consider these cakes like buildings, little structures, so I think in elevations, cross sections and planes.” SARA SNEATH.


9 AM


Michelle Lesniak Franklin bolts into her Southeast Portland studio, wrangling her two Chihuahuas, Velcro and Ivan. The most recent Project Runway winner is here prepping for FashioNXT, the Portland fashion event running Oct. 9-12, where she’ll show women’s wear clothing in a style she dubs “rocker bitch meets princess.” There are also swatches and sketches on her desk for a dress she’s designing for a client to wear to the Primetime Emmy Awards later this month. She won’t divulge who that client is, but judging from the swatches, she’ll be rocking canary-yellow silk.

The previous evening, Franklin was besieged by fans at a Crystal Ballroom show. The Portland native appreciates the attention, but says, “there are times when I just need to go buy a box of tampons” without posing for iPhone photos.

Franklin still runs her business, Au Clothing, as a one-woman operation. As of late August, she still hadn’t received her $100,000 prize from Project Runway. The biggest misconception people have about her? “That I’m rich.” RICHARD SPEER.

10 AM

Remember the first homework assignment of a new school year? The six dancers stretching at Oregon Ballet Theatre are having a moment like that.

“They’ve been off for the bulk of the summer,” says rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, her hair pulled on top of her head in a sloppy bun, “so we’re just going to not push too hard today.”

OBT’s upcoming season will have a contemporary spin, thanks to new artistic director Kevin Irving. The schedule includes Nacho Duato’s Por Vos Muero, a  sensual depiction of medieval Spain, and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero, a piece heavy  with industrial imagery. The company will not do a full classical ballet like last  season’s Swan Lake.

“I’m way more sore after doing a contemporary piece because I’m pushing my body in a completely different way,” says Eva Burton, 22, who wears purple down boots to keep her feet warm, even though the studio is sweltering. “Like instead of just doing a well-placed développé a la seconde, I might be leaning off my leg and trying to get it cranked high.” AARON SPENCER.


11 AM

Kneeling beside a small stack of wood, Jeff Liddicoat selects five sticks and gently fits them together. What looked like little more than kindling becomes a deer, just over a foot tall, which he christens “Bumby.”

“People like coherence and understandability,” says Liddicoat, a middle-aged Miami native who moved to Portland in 1981 and has twice run for mayor, winning less than a half percent of the vote each time. “Otherwise, it is just a pile of wood.”

Better known as “Voodoo Jeff,” Liddicoat sees lifelike images in the wood he  scavenges daily and brings back to his street gallery—and makeshift home—on Southeast 12th Avenue. Sun-bleached driftwood becomes a long-beaked bird. A human-shaped twig has been outfitted with a chunk of wood resembling a crown.

Viewers stop daily to examine and take pictures of the ever-changing Watts Towers-esque installation. The gallery’s future is uncertain—Portland police have been making homeless sweeps around the city. In the meantime, Liddicoat will  wander parks and streets, waiting for shapes to appear in sticks and twigs. JEN LEVINSON.



A woman who resembles a young Jodie Foster—save the shock of green-dyed hair—proudly holds up the fruits of her labor. She has used a bleach pen to stain a black T-shirt with the phrase, “GET FUCKED PUSSY.”

“I don’t care if you’re white or black or gay,” she says cheerfully. “I hate everyone equally. So get fucked, pussies!”

Today at p:ear—a local nonprofit that offers arts-based mentoring to  homeless and transitional youth—volunteer Michelle McClintock works with a  group of mostly young women to modify donated shirts and make them their  own.

A 22-year-old named Sonja gets to work cutting up the sides of a shirt, striping in ribbings of blue fabric with an impossible number of safety pins. She came to Portland about a year ago, fleeing the city she calls “San Franpsycho” after a  double-fatality shooting in front of her city-provided Tenderloin neighborhood  housing. Since hooking up with p:ear, she has already sold a mixed-media piece called Macaroni Pictures of Jesus. “I only sold it for like $5,” says Sonja, who is happy to learn it has joined the collection of a dedicated patron. And an hour  later, her patchwork shirt has begun to come into focus. “I need to challenge myself more often,” she says. Pausing, she adds, “I think clothing is a good thing for art. Because it’s functional, too. I’m gonna wear this.” MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


1 PM

In Portland Center Stage‘s downstairs studio theater, actors Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks play chess and murmur to one another. Each sits on the edge of a double bed—part of a set still in progress, a no-frills motel room.

Director Rose Riordan sips iced coffee out of a massive insulated travel mug. “Do they play chess in The Mountaintop?” I whisper to her. That’s the play Paul and Hicks are rehearsing today, a two-hander by Katori Hall about the night before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination (it opened last weekend; see review here). No, Riordan says, they’re playing chess because she likes to make actors perform another task—patty-cake is another favorite—while rehearsing lines. “It creates room in their brains,” Riordan says. “The intensity of focus helps them learn how to listen to each other. It makes them partners.” REBECCA JACOBSON.


2 PM

An unassuming office complex in inner Southeast, the headquarters of Portlandia would probably disappoint the series’ fan base—too clean, too utilitarian, too Los Angeles. But squint hard enough, and there are a few flashes of homegrown whimsy. Janet Weiss, drummer and occasional location scout,  weaves her way through fresh-faced production assistants. Subtly awful  watercolors, commissioned locally, are hung throughout the office.

Today, as specialists enter preproduction, the mad whirl of activity is about all I’m allowed to observe. Once the cosmetologist starts drawing temporary tattoo designs, I’m ushered out. A producer deftly spins the art director’s monitor around. Celebrity anecdotes are universally brief and affectionate.

However daunting the cultural footprint, Portlandia remains a relatively  bare-bones operation. “There’s kind of a joie de vivre here, and an unbridled  enthusiasm that can sometimes trump or obfuscate quality,” says series co-star Carrie Brownstein. “People really value effort in Portland, and I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. There’s an incessant celebration of doing things.” JAY HORTON.

3 PM

In the living room of a Southeast Portland bungalow, Catherine Olson—one of Portland’s best sopranos—begins to sing:

Sex is part of what we’re all about

Yes, the mind’s got thought

But sweat’s got salt

And the chair’s got legs

And the farm’s got dirt

Olson sounds hesitant: It’s the first time she’s seen the lyrics and score for Viva’s Holiday. That in-progress opera, which composer/pianist Christopher Corbell hopes to finish by year’s end, is based on a memoir by Viva Las Vegas, Portland’s most celebrated stripper (and musician, actor, cancer survivor and former WW  intern).

“It has a great momentum,” Olson says. “I think it’ll be a fun scene.” She adopts the tone of Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein: “It’s coming alive!” she howls, devolving into giggles. BRETT CAMPBELL.


4 PM

“I think sculptures are alive, actually,” says Linda Austin, sticking her hand into what looks like a giant turkey leg made out of wire. “That’s part of my deal—my interactions with the props is almost like I’m equal to them and they’re equal to me.”

The 59-year-old choreographer and dancer moves around a few abstract  sculptures in a sunlit studio off Southeast Foster Road, rehearsing for a piece  called Three Trick Pony that will premiere this weekend at the Time-Based Art Festival (see additional previews here). You could call it a duet between Austin and the sculptures by David Eckard. At one sculpture, Austin messily applies red lipstick and presses her lips against a paper window. At another—three boxes  made from railroad ties and covered in yellow fur—she snaps at her waist,  whipping her hair and grunting. Later, she showers herself with sliced-up pool noodles.

In its mount, the wire turkey leg looks a bit like a penny-farthing bicycle. Austin pulls out the leg, and the mount rolls freely across the room. “It’s supposed to do that,” she says. AARON SPENCER.


5 PM

In a small corner room of Lidia Yuknavitch‘s Milwaukie home—walls and ceiling painted navy, windows draped—the author sits barefoot at her computer  with a glass of white wine. A baffling assortment of knickknacks adorns the  desktop: a small rubber chicken, a bottle of Balvenie Scotch, a box full of glass  eyes.

“I’m deeply connected to ritual and talismans and smells and trinkets, and I have to have it like this,” Yuknavitch says. “I’ve built it, this ritualized or over-ritualized pleasure zone. I have to have my creatures and my people near me or I literally can’t do it. I’m hoping that’s normal.”

Yuknavitch’s revealing memoir, The Chronology of Water, brought her a new  level of fame, which she followed with the novel Dora: A Headcase. She’s working on two more novels based on Joan of Arc and Mary Shelley. “I think it took writing the memoir to make me want to tell stories about women who free  themselves from their own story,” Yuknavitch says. “It felt like I freed a girl trapped in her own past.” And with that, she takes a sip of wine and returns to  her ritual. PENELOPE BASS.

6 PM


In a leafy garden on Northeast Prescott Street, a tuneful rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” rings out. It’s a strange song for an unusually muggy summer day, but these 16 actors—mostly young, some barefoot, a few smoking cigarettes—are at callbacks for Portland Playhouse‘s winter production of A Christmas Carol. It’s the first time the 6-year-old company has produced a holiday show, and based on the auditions, it’s unlikely to be a traditional affair.

“I’m reading for Scrooge,” says Jennifer Rowe, who’d first expressed interest in the role of Belle—Scrooge’s spurned girlfriend. Also reading for Scrooge is Jason Rouse, a big-bellied actor with sideburns just a notch slimmer than Elvis’. Inside,  Rouse runs a scene, conveying Scrooge’s frustration with theatrical bombast. Director Cristi Miles, a petite woman with an intense gaze and kind voice, cuts off Rouse. “Sit down,” she says softly. “Keep your voice in the lower register. Don’t  yell until you have to yell. You’re only allowed to yell three times. Three times!” REBECCA JACOBSON.


7 PM

To say the corner of Southwest 3rd Avenue and Ankeny Street is a hot spot for busking would be an understatement: the line at Voodoo Doughnut means there’s nearly always an audience.

Armed with a guitar and saw, two road-worn 20-somethings set up a piece of cardboard advertising their name—Itchy On the Fence—and writhe their way  through a gypsy-folk rendition of Tom Waits’ “Tango Till They’re Sore.” A young  dad in Ray-Bans and a Michigan Law T-shirt chuckles as his toddler bursts into an erratic dance routine you might see at a Lady Gaga concert. He tosses a  crumpled $5 bill into the open guitar case.

“Busking in Portland can be very lucrative,” says Nicole, the 28-year-old saw player. “It’s very competitive, but we’ve been fortunate enough to grab a lot of attention.” PETE COTTELL.


8 PM

Geahk Burchill‘s St. Johns studio is a mere six blocks from his apartment, but this windowless space might as well be his home. “I spend most of my waking  time here,” says the self-described introvert. Burchill is a perfectionist maker of  marionettes, gorgeously macabre wooden puppets that he carefully carves,  paints and costumes. His Castiron Carousel Marionette Troupe makes puppet  theater that is, in Burchill’s words, “dark, creepy, haunting, beautiful and surreal.” It is, he adds, “definitely not for kids.”

His marionettes are remarkable. A female puppet looks like a scarier Tim Burton  illustration sprung to life, with a dour face, frighteningly long neck and ruffled black skirt that lifts to reveal four articulated, spiderlike legs. A hare, each bit of fur represented by a precise notch, has had one haunch replaced by a cold  mechanical limb. A little girl with pink ballet slippers and purple Princess  Leia-style buns has a greenish, knobby lobster claw in place of her left arm.

Tonight, Burchill, who has white-blond eyebrows and eyelashes, works on the  puppets for an upcoming play called The Doom That Came to Fiddle Creak, a supernatural tale that H.P. Lovecraft might have written had he been reared on Appalachian folklore. Burchill sharpens his blade against a leather strop and  picks up the head of a marionette, a young man named Jack Thursbane. With  confident flicks, Burchill gives Jack ears, eye sockets and cheekbones. “There’s  lots and lots of hours of this, but it’s incredibly meditative,” he says. “There’s a  reason you always see old folks whittlin’ on porches.” REBECCA JACOBSON.


9 PM

A warehouse is shaking in a remote corner of Northeast Portland. It starts with a rumble. Beats reverberate. The floor trembles. Drummers spin and dance.  Cymbals clang as a man lurches through the ensemble like a drunken jester. In  the back, a duo hammers on the same large drum. With a loud “Ha!” drumsticks  are raised and everything falls quiet: all in praise of Amaterasu, goddess of the  sun.

Tonight, Portland Taiko prepares for its 19th season, which begins Oct. 12 with a show titled Making Waves. “It’s one of the most empowering experiences because it’s a full-body experience,” says artistic director Michelle Fujii. “It can take you on so many different spiritual paths.” RICHARD GRUNERT.


10 PM

Floyd’€™s Coffee Shop in Old Town is filled with bearded guys in skirts and women with neon-dyed, Hitler Youth haircuts. The walls are hung with glittery latch-hook portraits of the Golden Girls. Tonight’s variety show is almost over.

Burlesque performer Baby Le’Strange (aka Megan Buday) slinks onstage wearing a huge hot-dog bun as if it’s a floor-length parka. Ratty fuschia hair  askew, she looks drunk and ready to ride someone. As the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be  Your Dog” plays, she removes the bun to reveal a sparkling red gown, and  seconds later, a similarly sparkling G-string. She gyrates her hips and gives her  best O-face to the audience. Then she prepares for her raunchiest magic trick: From between her legs, she pulls long, glittery strands—mustard, relish and  ketchup.

“I have no couth,” Buday says afterwards. “One of these days I want to be a squirting cream Twinkie. I need to figure out a way to put a pastry bag in my  vagina and squirt.” AARON SPENCER.


11 PM

In standup comedy, there’s bombing, and then there’s whatever the tall, boyish  kid onstage at Brody Theater‘s open mic is doing. His Arnold Schwarzenegger  impression sounds more Cool Runnings than The Terminator. His bit on talking  squids elicits only nervous pity-titters. He asks the host how much time he’s got  left. With four minutes to go, he hugs the back wall like a safety blanket. “Is this heroin gluten-free?” he mutters.

It’s cringingly uncomfortable—and an example of what makes live comedy such a visceral art form. Even the most polished comics walk a tightrope, and while witnessing a great comic destroy a room is exhilarating, it’s an entirely different  thrill watching someone plunge to their death. And there are bodies all over the Brody tonight.

Back onstage, the kid mostly fills his time with dead air. “You guys like P. Diddy?”  he asks. Thankfully, the host—dryly sarcastic yet uniformly supportive—steps in for the mercy kill. “You don’t have to be funny all the time,” he reminds us. MATTHEW SINGER.



Sea Tramp Tattoo Co. is Portland’s oldest such shop. It was opened three  decades ago by Bert Grimm, a native Oregonian who claimed to have inked Bonnie and Clyde. His far-flung string of parlors did much to brighten the reputation of tattoos, once just for bikers and swabbies but now favored by  people like 20-year-old Jerica Coughlin, a dark-haired sylph from the suburbs of Dallas. Asked if she considers tattoos art, Coughlin is vaguely offended. “Well,” she says, tapping an intricate starlike design flowering out beneath her belly button, “I drew that. I think it’s art.” JAY HORTON. 


1 AM


From the eighth floor of her Pearl District apartment, Sandra Stone—prose writer, opera librettist, winner of an Oregon Book Award—is digging into her next volume. The manuscript chronicles her rehabilitation from a bad fall she took in 2001 in New York. Sharing hospital space with victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she gained strength from those survivors’ indomitable will to live. A beloved Portland fixture known for her salons and illustrious friends, Stone has been nicknamed “Night Owl,” thanks to her penchant for witching-hour emails and all-night writing marathons.

“There’s sanctum in the night,” she says. “I love hearing the voices of the sepia hours. I sometimes write with all the lights off and the screen very dim.”

Stone refuses to reveal her age. Whatever the number, she has the creative juices and work ethic of a hungry young writer, setting herself to chronicle “the  vagaries of the human heart leaping the chasm.” As the clock approaches 2 am,  Stone hints coyly at one of her new work’s subplots. It’s something unexpected that happened to her as she recovered from her fall: a romance. RICHARD SPEER.

2 AM

IMAGE: Ronit Fahl

It’s closing time at the busy Montage restaurant under the Morrison  Bridge—long known for late-night spicy mac and its Last Supper mural with staff  painted as Jesus and the apostles—and Angela Vincent is preparing a dragonfly.

More to the point, she’s yanking reams of aluminum foil out of long rollers to fold the abdomen of the bug around beans and rice. A screaming roll becomes a wing, another the second wing. It’s all over in about 45 seconds, leaving a fully formed insect about 3 feet long. Montage does this with all leftovers, packaging them as  custom-made foil creatures—or a He-Man sword.

“We teach each other shapes,” Vincent says. “First snails, then cats, then squirrels. Anything with legs takes a little longer.” The best she’s seen is a flying Pegasus  unicorn. Behind Vincent, server Sean Moder constructs deformities, still twisting  them as he speed-walks to the waiting tables: squirrels with scorpion tails,  penises with wings and other crossbred affronts to nature.

Usually the shapes are at the servers’ whims, but sometimes they’re tailor-made.  Late-night stoners might get bongs, for example. “Somebody asked for a single  frog leg wrapped up,” Vincent says. “So I made him a frog with one leg missing.” MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


3 AM

We don’t have to look homeless, says “Jane,”€ a street artist, because we’re heteronormative. “Cops won’t question a guy and a girl standing on a corner together.”

What’s important is we look like we belong on the mostly vacant streets of the  Industrial Eastside at 3 am. Jane and I are standing lookout. Down the block, “John” spray-paints a brick wall’s buffed white rectangle—graffiti that’s been  painted over by the city—to look like the side of a Mack truck with balloon-animal hieroglyphics.

Down the way, an actual delivery truck turns on its headlights. “Chill!” Jane says, and John tucks away his spray can. The truck doesn’t move, so she whistles an  all-clear.

I’ve been warned that “what we’re doing is illegal and to come with a sober mind.” Jane knows the law better than some paralegals: Painting more than 14 feet above the street is ideal, she says, because Oregon Occupational Safety and  Health Administration regulations make it harder for workers to cover it up.  Portland is one of the worst cities for public art, she says, with police even staking out street-art gallery shows to photograph patrons.

Jane’s screen prints are intricate and lovely. She uses only plant-based materials  for the ink and paste. “I worry about what I put in my body,” she says, “and I  worry about what I put in the environment.”

Over the course of an hour, Jane and John each place art at four spots. Along the  way, they affectionately point out the work of other artists. Jane sighs aloud when she sees someone’s work covered over.

At what will be the final stop, near Southeast Grand Avenue, John gets out his materials. As I watch, a police car stops mid-intersection three blocks away.

“Chill,” I tell them. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


4 AM

The rented studio inside AudioCinema is piled with replica M16s and Glocks. There’s a stack of army costumes and gaming-convention T-shirts. The fridge is stocked with Red Bull. “I’m up at 4 am because it’s when I’m most creative,” says J. Lee, the videographer who uses this space to make live-action short films based on video games. His work appears on YouTube and is discussed on gamer blogs. He plays a trailer he made for Resident Evil, hesitating before pressing play. “Straight-up art doesn’t work on the net,” Lee says. “Portland has such an indie vibe. Everyone is resistant to YouTube.”

Lee is commissioned by game makers to do this. His hero is film director Michael Bay, who got his start before Transformers making 90-second promotional clips.  As I leave AudioCinema at 5 am, it’s still dark. Lee walks back into his studio. “I’ll be here for a while,” he says. JOE DONOVAN.

The Chronic of Gnarnia

Gnarnia isn’t hard to find. Just head south on Southeast 11th Avenue, until the smell of grease radiating from the Burgerville on Hawthorne Boulevard gives way to bong smoke. It’s home to a universe of enthralling characters, but upon entering, “magical” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind. The only negotiable path to the basement—filled with broken drums and half-strung guitars—is choked with busted microphone cables. The kitchen is covered in graffiti. The living room serves as a shambolic testament of defiance or laziness, the kind of pit you’d expect a stoned teenager to leave booby-trapped with trash to ward off parental units.


Photos by Pete Cottell

“€œI don’€™t walk barefoot in this house,”€ says resident Erik Gage, a heavyset dude in a thrift-store button-down shirt and wispy mustache, his beer gut folded over cut-off jean shorts. “€œThat’€™s a fact.”

If it weren’€™t for the stack of mismatched tape decks towering over the rubble and filth in the living room, this would be just another flophouse for wayward 20-somethings. And while it definitely is that, it is also, more crucially, home to Gnar Tapes and Shit. As its name implies, the label, which Gage started with a small group of friends in 2008, releases music almost exclusively on cassette tape, a recording medium that seemingly went extinct in the early ’90s. In recent years, however, the indie-music world at-large has rediscovered cassettes in ever-increasing numbers–to the point that the movement now has its own national holiday, dubbed Cassette Store Day. While the world was questing for an alternative to iTunes, the tape scene grew from a nostalgic niche market to a boundless universe of pop-loving weirdos. And in Portland, the center of that universe is Gnarnia.

“€œTapes are cheap, easy and fast,” Gage says. “I’€™ve been doing this since 2007, and since then there’€™s been an evolution where a lot of artists will approach the tape and will make an album just for tape and try things, because it costs so much less to make than a vinyl record.”

Next to the mountain of thrift-store production implements stands a cache of recent releases, arranged in cardboard boxes with tags like “Weedsmokers”€ and “€œLove Cop”€ scrawled on the sides in permanent marker. The labels have been crossed out and scribbled over several times. When you produce an average of five tapes per week, organization takes a backseat.

But Gnar Tapes isn’€™t just prolific: It’s also remarkably consistent. Beneath the tape hiss, the label’™s banner acts–€”Unkle Funkle, the Memories and White Fang–€”display a ramshackle charm and erratic sense of melody. They’€™re all still weird as shit, but their warped lo-fi aesthetic is less a shield to hide shoddy songcraft than it is a byproduct of the crew’€™s spastic work ethic. The label’€™s makeshift roduction technique allows them to literally do everything from the comfort of their own squat: put it on tape, sell it on the Web, move on to the next one.

“€œWe’€™re not really so much about sound quality,”€ Gage says. “€œWe don’€™t really choose between lo-fi and hi-fi. It’€™s about songs. A song can be played a million different ways. Whole bands start from goofing around on tape, and they end up
developing this voice they feel, this character.”

“Addled punker”€ is Gage’€™s character when he’€™s fronting White Fang, arguably the most noteworthy branch of the Gnar Tapes family tree. Pitchfork gave the group’€™s 2011 album, Grateful to Shred, a positive review and dubbed the group “€œthe boisterous beating heart of the Portland DIY punk scene.”€ In addition to getting the attention of the national blogosphere, White Fang also roped in Casey Gordon and Dan Stump, a pair of 21-year-old students from Brown University. After hearing a White Fang tape last summer, the duo was taken aback by the dissonance between the collective’€™s stoner aesthetic (including a cheap-looking website decorated with pot leaves and neon alien skulls) and its dedicated work ethic.

Gordon and Stump pitched the idea of following the Gnar Tapes crew around for two months this summer, with the intent of filming a documentary about how the label pairs a once-abandoned analog recording format with modern digital networking techniques to spread ideas on the cheap. Brown, an Ivy League school, took the bait and awarded them each a $4,000 Royce Fellowship to live in the Gnarnia basement for two months. While other Royce fellows were conducting research to cure osteoarthritis and studying the art of female expatriates from World War II in Mexico, Gordon and Stump were sleeping on air mattresses in the bands’€™ basement practice space. To escape mold and two inches of standing water, the duo eventually abandoned their basement post and moved to a tent in the backyard. In the first month Gordon and Stump were there, Gnar released 20 tapes.

“€œIt’€™s an important thing they’€™re doing,”€ Gordon says. “€œI think it’€™s really admirable that it’€™s taken on as a community project or even a civic duty than a business plan. Someone has to carry the torch and be the mainstay of art in these places where labels aren’€™t going to do that most of the time. I think the blanket of encouragement you get from this scene is something you don’€™t get from a lot of other places.”€

Other labels are starting to take note of Gnar as well.

“We love everything they do and how they do it,”€ said Sean Bohrman, co-founder of Orange County’€™s Burger Records, which has put out albums by the likes of Ty
Segall, Thee Oh Sees and King Tuff. Burger and Gnar frequently share bands, personnel and tour routes, and have released more than 250 cassettes together  since meeting through mutual friends in the Portland punk group Mean Jeans a few years back. “€œIt’€™s very cool how they do everything in-house,” Bohrman says. “€œThat’€™s a dream of ours that we haven’€™t achieved yet. They record it, dub it and sell it from Gnarnia. It never leaves the house.”

Back at Gnarnia, the living room gradually fills with the rest of the crew, all dressed in what is best described as “€œSalvation Army chic”€: hectagonal librarian glasses complete with beaded strap, a T-shirt with Super Mario World characters printed on it, a pair of red spandex shorts that likely have not seen a gym since the previous owner donated them in 1991. I ask if they hold down day jobs to keep their empire afloat.

“€œNo, man,”€ Gage replies, gesturing toward the stack of cardboard boxes. “€œWe live meagerly and don’€™t ask for much, and we make enough money to pay for our weed and rent. We do what we need to do and put our money in the pot, and nobody is wanting. There’€™s always weed, always food, always electricity. We’€™ve all made promises to each other and we never lie, and it’€™s never about the money. We never fight about girls, we never fight about any of that stuff. All the distractions and the things along the way–€”nothing is blocking our path. I guess it’€™s worth rolling the dice, because you can always go
back to McDonald’€™s.”€

As I prepare to leave, a few more groggy band members trickle in, cereal bowls in hand. Gage asks me if I’€™d like to stick around and smoke a bowl, to which I decline. It’€™s 3:45, and I have to go to work. Then again, so do they.

GO: Cassette Store Day is Saturday, Sept. 7. 



Beacon Sound

1465 NE Prescott St., 360-1268, beaconsound.net

  • €”Peter Broderick (Horse Feathers, Loch Lomond, Efterklang) signing copies of 2008 album Float, which is being reissued through German label Erased Tapes, 10 am-2:30 pm.

Everyday Music

1931 NE Sandy Blvd., 239-7610 & 1313 W Burnside St., 274-0961, everydaymusic.com

  • “€œA whole bunch”€ of tapes out from their warehouse for sale.
  • €”An artist signing with Charles Bradley (downtown location), 5 pm.

Music Millennium

3158 E Burnside St., 231-8926, musicmillennium.com

  • Special cassette-only releases from Xiu Xiu, Guided By Voices and more.
  • €”Thousands of cassettes on sale starting at 99 cents.
  • €”A contest to win Beats By Dre headphones.
  • The first 15-20 people in the door will receive a gift bag filled with free cassette tapes.

Record Room

8 NE Killingsworth St., (971) 544-7685, recordroompdx.net

  • €”A cassette tape fair, featuring material from Gnar Tapes, Cassingle & Loving It and more,   and a “€œmystery mixtape swap,”€ 4-8 pm.

Stumptown Printers

2293 N Interstate Ave., 233-7478, stumptownprinters.com

  • €”Releasing a hot pink, limited edition line of their DIY cassette tape packaging. More info here.